On Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, we enter the sometimes confusing but always intriguing world of the English language. One of the curiosities of language is how words are created and evolve. The study of word origins is etymology, and today’s topic is toponyms.
What is a toponym? Well, “topo” means place and “nym” means name. A toponym, therefore, is a word that derives from a place. Some familiar ones might be Bohemian (a free spirit, Bohemia); Neanderthal (an intellectually backward man, Neander Valley); and limerick (a five-lined aabba poem, Limerick, Ireland).
But I was surprised to learn certain other words are toponyms. For this post, I must credit John Bemelmans Marciano, author of Toponymity. His book masterfully describes the origins of dozens of toponyms, with a bit of humor thrown into the mix.
Here are a few toponyms and their interesting backgrounds.
Bikini. In 1946, two big things were happening: Americans were conducting atomic tests in the South Pacific, and clothing designers were shrinking swimwear. Jacques Heim designed “the world’s smallest swimsuit” and called it the Atom. Soon after, Frenchman Louis Réard designed a two-piece swimsuit which scandalously exposed the navel and claimed that it split the Atom. The Americans’ nuclear testing had started a few days before at Bikini Atoll, so Réard called his creation the bikini. Since their inception, nuclear bomb explosions have been rare, but bikinis are seen in huge numbers every summer.
Danish. President Woodrow Wilson was a widower. Then he fell in love with Edith Galt and married her in 1915. Their White House wedding was a huge affair, and Danish pastry chef L.C. Klitteng used the event to introduce his country’s pastry to the American public. Soon after, he convinced Manhattan businessman Herman Gertner to begin offering these delectable pastries at his restaurants. Eventually, Gertner got out of the restaurant business and started manufacturing danishes instead. Meanwhile, the Danes call this pastry wienerbrod, or Viennese bread, after those people who taught the Danes how to make it.
Hack. Hackney, England was once a smaller village outside London and was well-known for its horses in the Middle Ages. A hackney horse was not bred for work or war or even hunting, but for the mere pleasure of riding. Thus, hackneys became popular for renting, and all rented horses became known as hackneys. Shortened, it became “hack.” When something is rented a lot, however, it tends to get worn out. Thus, the transition of the word “hack” to mean that worn-out, work-for-hire type – which now applies specifically to writers.
Jeans. Fustian cloth was “the first widely used cotton fabric in Europe,” and it included linen on the base. It was both soft and easily dyed. A cheaper, tougher version of this cloth was made in Genoa and named after the city (“Geane” or “Jeane” in French). Both fustian and denim became popular in America. Having similar uses, their names became confused, or interchangeable. So when denim became the stuff of pants, the name “jeans” stuck.
Morgue. The original Morgue was the dungeon of the Châtelet prison where anonymous corpses were dropped off. Visitors were free to wander around looking for their lost loved ones. The place was named after an archaic French word, morguer – meaning “to stare at questioningly.” Edgar Allen Poe made the name morgue more widely known in his tale, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Today’s morgues also store the dead and ask family members to identify loved ones; they are all named after the original.
Serendipity. Author Horace Walpole invented the word “serendipity,” in a letter he wrote in January 1754. He based it on a fairy tale titled “The Three Princes of Serendip,” in which the princes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” Serendip is the ancient Persian name for Sri Lanka.
Spa. The town of Spa, Belgium became known in the 13th century for its hot springs, which were touted as healthy for both bathing and ingesting. The fad of bathing in springs spread, and eventually the English opened a resort at a spring in Yorkshire known as the English Spaw. Why they added the “w”, I don’t know, but it’s gone again. Thankfully, our spas are more than hot springs and include everything from baths to mani-pedis to massage, which are still good for our health, if only our mental health.
Tarantula. Taranto, Italy was once so infested with a particular type of spider that the arachnid became known as a tarantula. However, these were not the tarantulas that we think of – you know, the ones that Indiana Jones and his assistant encounter in the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Americans borrowed the name “tarantula” to label the big, furry spiders that most would rather avoid.
These are just a few toponyms – words that derive from places. I recommend Marciano’s book, Toponymity, if you are interested in etymology. He provides further detail for each of these words and expounds on many more.
What other toponyms do you know? Do you enjoy discovering the origins of words? Do you want to suggest a neologism and coin your own toponym? Go right ahead.